Glen Paul still remembers his first week on the job at a copper-gold mine in British Columbia's Interior – a position, he says, he landed three years ago as a "fluke" after taking a course to operate heavy machinery.
Mr. Paul says he didn't start his training with a specific plan to end up in the mining industry, but there he was at the New Afton project near Kamloops, which at the time was still two years away from full production. By his second day, he was standing underground for an orientation of the mine site.
"When I was younger, I really liked geology. … I've always been interested in machines, and after I got to see everything underground and to see some of the machines I had a possibility of working on, I was hooked," said Mr. Paul, 24, who grew up on the Kamloops Indian Band reserve and was connected to the job through the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association.
Three years later, Mr. Paul is still at the mine, owned by New Gold Inc., where he now works as a technician lubricating and servicing equipment. He has completed a pre-apprenticeship course and is waiting for a heavy duty mechanic apprenticeship to open up.
In many ways, Mr. Paul is a rare commodity: a young worker entering an industry that observers warn is on the verge of a critical shortage of skilled labour, with some estimates predicting British Columbia alone will need more than 10,000 workers during the next 10 years. Across the country, the shortfall of workers could be more than 100,000 as older miners retire and new mines begin production.
In those numbers, Mr. Paul sees opportunity – for high pay, good benefits and a chance to work close to home.
The dire predictions of a skilled labour shortage in the mining industry became intertwined during the past year with a controversy in B.C. over the use of temporary foreign workers. A Chinese mining firm's plans to bring 201 Chinese miners to a project in the northern part of the province drew ire from across the political spectrum and prompted two unions to launch a legal challenge, which ultimately ended in the company's favour in May.
HD Mining insisted it could not find enough trained miners, governments used the controversy to pledge renewed focus on training, unions said there were enough skilled workers in Canada, and industry groups warned such cases could become more common if more isn't done to head off the labour shortage.
According to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, the industry currently employs about 235,000 people across Canada, including workers in exploration and development, mining and quarrying, and support services.
The council predicts about 146,000 workers across the country will be needed in the next decade to replace retirees and work in new projects. Strong growth in the industry would increase that figure, the council said in its 2013 labour assessment.
But the council predicts the expected pool of new talent won't meet the demand. It identified 66 occupations in what it described as "core mining activities," saying that about 79,000 people will need to be hired in those fields, while only 63,000 new workers are expected to be available.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce published a report earlier this year that similarly warned that a glut of new workers entering the mining industry in the 1980s and 90s created a "lost generation of miners" that will make it difficult to replace retirees.
Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the human resources council, says the industry and governments must ensure they have a long-term vision for attracting and retaining workers from a broad spectrum of society. His group says immigrants, aboriginals and women are underrepresented in the industry, and programs to recruit and train them will be essential to fill the projected gap.
He acknowledges some companies may turn to temporary foreign workers to fill short-term positions, but he insists the industry recognizes the importance of hiring permanent workers – either Canadians or permanent immigrants – who he says are less expensive and more sustainable in the long term.
"The question is, 'Where are these people going to come from?'" Mr. Montpellier said. "I think I can speak for the majority of the mining industry that says, ideally, where possible, employers prefer to hire local."